29 Jul 2017 19:39 IST

‘Don’t be afraid that technology will take away jobs’

It can, in fact be used to solve world problems, says John FO Bilson, Dean of Stuart Business School

Today’s business schools face a unique challenge — of teaching students how to be great leaders while, at the same time, making sure they’re on their toes when it comes to keeping up with technological innovations and changes.

This constantly changing work environment, in which one has to grapple with a barrage of disruptive innovations, has made many a manager jittery. Automation and machine learning have only made the doomsday scenario of machines taking over jobs that much more imminent. But John FO Bilson, Dean of the Stuart School of Business, Illinois Institute of Technology, says, “Don’t be afraid that technology is going to take away jobs.”

Speaking at the Great Lakes Institute of Management’s convocation in Chennai last week, he stressed that students are graduating into a different world. “We are at the start of a new technological revolution. And the world in ten years’ time will be very different from how you’re experiencing it today.”

Equipping students

Focussing on the most disruptive innovation in the world — the cell phone — he said: “As the Dean of a business school in a technological university, my job is to think about technological developments and adapt our educational programmes to prepare students to compete.”

Since communication today has veered from verbal to electronic, the students in his school are required to know programming languages such as Python. “In our business school, our finance students use computer graphics cards to create very fast multi-processors for high-frequency trading. Our marketing students use IBM Watson to analyse extremely large datasets. And next year we’ll be introducing courses on blockchain methodology, because it is the introduction of an entire new generation of instruments in the business world.”

Addressing the anti-immigrant wave in the US, he said: “You’ve heard a lot about what’s happening in the US, about restricting employment and innovation opportunities for students. If they are going to do that, which I don’t think will happen, companies are perfectly capable of moving to India. The country that is restricting innovation is the one going to suffer, not the company being biased against.”

Adapting to tech

Bilson narrates a joke that had gone viral on the internet that refers to a conversation between Jeff Bezos, President of Amazon, and Alexa, his electronic assistant. Jeff says, “Alexa, buy me something from Whole Foods.”

Alexa: Jeff, I bought Whole Foods for $13.5 billion.

Jeff: What? Okay. Whatever. Remember, we should not be paying any shipping charges because it’s over $25.

Alexa: Whole Foods has waived the shipping charges for this transaction.

Now this is a joke, but it’s not far from the truth, Bilson says. “We can already buy stocks and bonds on our computers; borrow on money, buy real estate online and, in future years, we’re going to effectively be able to do IPOs!”. He gave the example of Goldman Sachs, which recently announced that they have created the technology to automate their entire IPO process.

Introduction of electronic trading resulted in a fall in the prices of financial services, expansion of products and geographical reach, ensuring that the financial industry is thriving. “So it is true that technology changes jobs, but it doesn’t necessarily do away with the jobs.”

“Computers are now taking over more traditional investment management activities. Corporate finance, IPO, fixed-income trading, are all being done by computers. The result is more and more consumers have access to this tech. So don’t be afraid that technology is going to take away jobs,” he says.

The hiring game

In another anecdote, he spoke of his nephew, who recently graduated from UC Davis with a Ph.D. in theoretical mathematics — at the age of 23! “He likes to to spend his time playing games on his computer,” Bilson said. “One day, he got to the end of a particularly sophisticated game, and a window came up, which said. ‘Wow, you did really good at this game. Why don’t you come work for us at Google?’

Now, this is a remarkable development, Bilson said. “In older days, the way one got a job was to send a resume to a company, but it would barely represent a fraction of talent that is out there. So Google adopted the strategy of creating games to attract people into their company. They review literally millions of people who playing that game and select the top 1 per cent!”

Talking of how his students are required to have a LinkedIn profile, he said: “In the new tech road, you have to sell yourself. Don’t think you can get a job by just sending out a resume.”

Social entrepreneurship

“I believe this is the greatest business opportunity available to recent graduates. I’d like for you to ask yourselves — what are the biggest problems in the world? How do you solve them? Once you think of them, new technologies will help you solve that problem,” the Dean said.

He spoke of One Acre Fund, an non-profit organisation in East Africa that was founded by Andrew Youn. Youn has an MBA from Northwestern University, and wanted to solve the problem of hunger and rural poverty in Africa. And he addressed the issue by using technology.

“Someone once said, the first thing you should do after you graduate, is write your own obituary. If you notice obituaries, no one ever mentions the amount of money you made, the number of houses you owned or the number of cars you drove. The thing people do mention, is what you have done for your fellow men,” he concluded.